“I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States,” so begins the story. With President Obama’s second inauguration so fresh in the public mind, an article in the Sunday New Jersey Star-Ledger raised the question of using Bibles for taking this secular oath. As A. James Rudin points out, not every president has laid a hand on the Bible to take the oath—John Quincy Adams preferred a law book to do the job. Rudin points out that commentators have started to question the practice of using any religious book for taking a vow for a government position. As I read this article I had to pause for a thought. It was the particular turn of phrase “the Bible, and by implication all other religious writings,” that stopped me at this brain crossing.
Anyone who has taken time to study the phenomenon of religion seriously (admittedly not a large cohort) has stumbled upon the blue whale in the room: what exactly is religion? We all know, but nobody really knows. Many scientists equate religion with superstition and claim that we are evolving out of it, but we still seem preternaturally powerfully attached to it, if that’s the case. While religious writings have been around for ages, the idea of a sacred book seems to have its origins in the societal reception of the Bible. There are older religious books, but the Bible seems to have defined the category. What’s running rampant in my mind is where the line is drawn between a religious and a secular book. For some, it would seem, Fifty Shades of Grey, or Twilight would fall into that category. Some thinner, more glossy and heavily illustrated literature favored by teenaged boys might also qualify. What makes a book religious?
In current understanding, religion is a matter of belief. Not all religions insist on belief, but in the United States, in any case, it’s not properly religion without it. In our secular society belief is atomized into millions of varieties, even within the same religious family. Step outside the church, synagogue, or mosque, and the sheer varieties of religious experience would make even William James blush. “All other religious writings.” Those might include just about every pen stroke on paper (or electron on whatever it is that I’m typing this into). Those of us who venture to write know that at some level it is a sacred activity. I would swear it with my hand on my dissertation. (At graduation at Nashotah House students are hit on the head with a Bible. Perhaps this might be more appropriate to swearings in?) We lay our hands on that which is sacred, otherwise there’s no vow involved. Whether it be Bible, law book, or saucy literature, we pledge on it because all books are religious, regardless of definition.